Two men and two women stand in a room in front of a sign that says "Royal Canadian Legion, Gander Branch."

From Life-Changing to World-Changing: Keeping the Spirit of Come From Away Alive

4 min read

This article was published in 2016.

Come From Away, the new musical at Ford’s Theatre, commemorates the warmth and compassion that thousands of people found in a small town called Gander, Newfoundland, when their planes were diverted to Canada after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Many returned to their communities changed forever—for the better. Learn how that spirit of compassion and unity has been kept alive in the fifteen years since that day.

Pay It Forward Foundation

Kevin Tuerff—“Kevin 1” in Come From Away—returned to his home in Austin, Texas, still thinking about the kindness he had seen and experienced in Gander. He was inspired to put that feeling to work by establishing Pay It Forward 9/11. Beginning in 2002, Kevin’s marketing firm, Enviromedia, sends teams of employees out onto the streets of Austin, every September 11 armed with cash and instructions to do good in their community.

Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund

The passengers on Delta Flight 15 landed in Lewisporte, about 20 miles northwest of Gander. “They cared for us in so many different ways,” said Shirley Brooks-Jones, a retired administrator at The Ohio State University. “But they did it in such a marvelous way. They didn’t hover over you … they just seemed to be very perceptive about what the different people needed.”

When Delta Flight 15 was cleared for take-off three days later, Brooks-Jones addressed her fellow passengers. She inspired them to  collect money, which was used to form a scholarship for college-bound Lewisporte students. A total of $15,000 had been donated before the plane landed in Columbus, Ohio.

Today, more than 100 Lewisporte students have been helped by the scholarship, and over two million dollars has been donated in total. Shirley Brooks-Jones returns to Gander every spring to award the scholarship.

Rockefeller Foundation

Denise Gray-Felder, a vice president with the famous philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Foundation, also stayed in Lewisporte. She used Lewisporte Middle School’s computer lab to continue working for the foundation while in Newfoundland. She offered a grant to the school’s principal, Pam Coishto upgrade the computers. .

Six weeks later, Gray-Felder hadn’t heard from Coish, so she followed up. The Newfoundlander had stayed quiet in order to give the Foundation an out, in case they had reconsidered the gift. The school requested $35,000 to replace 35 computers. Gray-Felder rejected that amount—and  gave$52,500.

Claude Elliott, Godfather of Airbuses

German-based airline Lufthansa was so moved by the hospitality their passengers and crew found in Gander that they named an Airbus A340 “Gander and Halifax” in 2002. Two citizens of those towns were named godparents of the Airbus: Claude Elliott—mayor of Gander, and a character in Come From Away—and Nancy Kelly, wife of Halifax mayor Peter J. Kelly.

As part of the dedication, the new godparents wet the nose of the plane with Sekt and said the words: “I name you in the name of the towns of Gander and Halifax and I wish you, your passengers and your crew always happy landings.”

Lufthansa has been naming airplanes after cities (and naming respective mayoral godparents) since a Boeing 707 named Berlin in 1960, but this marks the first time a plane was named for a city outside of Germany.

A Baby Named Gander

Two of the passengers stranded in Gander were a pair of Bonobo monkeys, one female named Cosana and another pregnant female named Unga, who were on their way to the Columbus Zoo. The two bonobos, along with the dozens of cats and dogs who were in the holds of the planes, received the same hospitality as their human counterparts. They were watched around the clock by their handler, Harry, the Gander veterinarian Doc Tweedie, and Bonnie Harris, the SPCA volunteer who is featured in Come From Away.

The stress of the stay in Gander caused Unga to lose the baby she was carrying on September 11, but in 2003 she gave birth to a baby boy, her first of three offspring. The Columbus Zoo named the baby Gander, in honor of the town that had taken such good care of his mother.

A Piece of the Towers

Just before the 10th anniversary of September 11, a very special “come from away” arrived in Gander: a piece of steel from the World Trade Center. The beam was a gift from the Bethpage Fire Department on Long Island, New York, whose members were among the first responders at the twin towers on September 11. The beam is on display in the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander.

The 10th Anniversary Reunion

Lifelong bonds were forged in Gander during the week after September 11. A decade after the event, hundreds of plane people—the term coined to define the passengers stranded in Newfoundland—returned to Gander to commemorate the anniversary, remember the tragedy and visit the friends they had made.

Among those present at the 10th anniversary were Irene Sakoff and David Hein, a couple with a Canadian background and a growing list of plays to their name. They spent the anniversary interviewing many of the Gander residents and plane people. Those interviews became the basis of Come From Away.

Heather Hoagland is former Exhibitions and Collections Manager for Ford’s Theatre Society. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @HLHoagland.

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Heather Hoagland was former Exhibitions and Collections Manager for Ford’s Theatre Society.


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